March 12, 2008

Japanese Moon Probe Takes Spectacular High-Def Video

A Japanese space probe named Selene, or Kaguya in Japanese, has sent back breathtaking high-definition video of the Moon's surface.

The probe arrived at the moon last year with a large onboard HDTV camera to capture footage of the lunar surface from 62 miles overhead. The footage was unveiled at this week's Lunar and Planetary Science Conference in Houston, Texas.  

The video provides the spectacular imagery of the landscape seen decades ago by the Apollo astronauts as they approached the Moon. It includes incredible pictures of "Earth rise" over the moon's horizon and of the boundary between the Moon's day side and night side, known as the "terminator".

"It is quite a spectacular view," Dr Rie Honda of Japan's Kochi University, a collaborator on the Selene mission, told BBC News.

Selene consists of one main satellite and two smaller sub-satellites named Ouna and Okina. It is designed to carry out a global survey of the Moon, mapping its gravity, magnetic field and 3D topography.

Selene was launched on September 14 of last year, and entered an observational orbit 62 miles above the moon's surface on October 18 before completing its lunar mission on December 20.

The Japanese Space Agency (Jaxa) hopes the probes will serve as a technology demonstrator for orbital insertion, communications, and correction maneuvers.

Professor Manabu Kato, science manager for the mission, told BBC News the arrival of Selene at the Moon marked an important step for Japanese space science.

"We want to step up our technology and move on to Mars," he said.

"We have a near future plan that we will reach Mars by 2020-2025."

In addition to its HDTV camera, Selene carries 14 science instruments, including spectrometers, a multi-band imager to characterize the moon's mineral and chemical compositions and a radar sounder to survey shallow subsurfaces.

The HDTV camera was included purely for "outreach", or education, the scientists said.

"The HDTV camera has been developed by Jaxa and Japanese broadcaster NHK.

"We have been thinking that HDTV itself is not accurate enough for scientific purposes. But for giving a hint for other scientists of [wide areas], it will be," said Dr Honda.

The probe has already flown over an impact depression called Shackleton crater, where some scientists believe reservoirs of water-ice may be held. These could become useful someday to future lunar colonists.

Mission scientists are evaluating data from their Shackleton over-flight, but have found no evidence yet that supports the existence of ice on the moon.

"Our principal investigator is looking at this again and again, because there are many people interested in this [question]," said Dr Kato.

The spacecraft has already flown over Apollo landing sites, and some have hoped the probe might be able to provide images of equipment left behind by the US Apollo and Russian Lunokhod missions.

But Professor Kato said the craft's terrain camera resolution was only 10m, so it was "not easy to determine traces of Apollo or Russian vehicles".


On the Net:

Kaguya Mission